One hundred years ago, San Francisco held a great fair. Known as the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), it was organized to celebrate the rebuilding of San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. To celebrate this anniversary, the Robert Tat Gallery is presenting photographs picturing the scope of San Francisco history–from the 19th century to the present day. More than 30 vintage images dating from 1851 to the 1960s are on view in “San Francisco: Rebirth of the Enduring City.”
Gallery Director Robert Tat explains: “While the mostly architectural photographs of the Fair itself are beautiful, our exhibition places them in context. The Exposition was a celebration of rebirth, so we want to show the city as it was as well as the city that later emerged. The scope and breadth of the exhibition gives one a sense of the varied history of the city, and what makes San Francisco such a marvelous place to live and visit.”
The Panama Pacific Exposition took over three years to construct and had great economic implications for the city that had been almost destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906. The exposition did much to boost the morale of the entire Bay Area and to help get San Francisco back up on its feet. The fair ran from February 20th until December 4th, 1915 — and was widely considered to be a great success.
Officially, the exposition was a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, and also commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovering of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer, Balboa. San Francisco was only one of many cities hoping to host the PPIE. New Orleans was its primary rival, but in 1911 after a long competition of advertising and campaigning, President Taft proclaimed San Francisco to be the official host city.
The tallest most well-recognized building of the PPIE was the Tower of Jewels. Standing 43 stories tall, the building was covered by more than a hundred thousand colored glass “jewels” that dangled individually to shimmer and reflect light as the Pacific breezes moved them. There were many other palaces, courts, state and foreign buildings to see at the fair – however most of them were made of a temporary plaster-like material, designed to only last for the duration of the fair. Luckily, one of the primary exposition buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts, was not torn down with the rest of the buildings, and was completely reconstructed in the 1960’s.
Described by Tat as a “cavalcade” of images, the retrospective begins with a rare panorama made from two daguerreotypes of the San Francisco waterfront before April, 1851. Other 19th century photographs of the early city include views by Carleton Watkins, I. W. Taber, William Henry Jackson and others, dating from the 1870s. “California Street From Sansome Street, San Francisco,” taken by Isaiah West Taber in 1875, shows the hilly thoroughfare as it looked in the days of horses and buggies and early cable cars.
Images of Market Street and Mission Dolores by William Henry Jackson reveal a turn-of-the-century landscape. Jackson used the Photochrom process, which involved a “litho stone” and some chemical interaction, to color his photos. The exhibition continues with images of the destroyed city just after the earthquake. A vintage Arnold Genthe photograph made a day or two after the quake reflects the horror and devastation, along with the prevailing spirit of the survivors. An R. J. Waters panorama made one year after shows a partially re-built city.
Then, on to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition with vintage prints depicting the classical architecture of the Fair by Studio Cardinell-Vincent (official PPIE photographer), Francis Bruguiere and others. Of particular note is a grouping of vintage hand-colored views of the fair. The show’s centerpiece features the Panama-Pacific International Exposition and includes hand-colored silver prints of its architecture and splendor. Frequently photographed structures include the Tower of Jewels, the exposition’s central building. An image of the Palace of Fine Arts is by Francis Brugiere, who was known for experimenting with multiple exposures.
The exhibition concludes with 20th century images of the mid-century and modern city, including works by Perkle Jones, Moulin Studios, Horace Bristol, Vern Sutcher and others. Of particular interest is the dramatic-looking “Tower, San Francisco Bay Bridge Under Construction” which was taken in 1936 by Horace Bristol, a Depression-era artist who also worked with John Steinbeck.
Robert Tat Gallery. 49 Geary Street, Suite 410, San Francisco. Wednesday – Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m; Tuesday by appointment.